IAFF Members Build Houses for Wounded Soldiers

February 17 • 2016

Volunteers gather with recipient Jason Smith and his wife, Lauren.

A Soldier’s Journey Home (ASJH), a non-profit group that builds houses for wounded soldiers, was a long time in the making.

Mike Fitzpatrick, president of ASJH and former president of Frankfort, KY Local 1017, who had been building houses for a post-9/11 group – New York Says Thank You – in a growing pay-it-forward service movement, was inspired to organize his own “build” for Jason Smith, a soldier who had both legs amputated in 2012 after a tour in Afghanistan. In 10 days, he and a team of 50 – mostly fire fighters from the surrounding areas – helped a new handicap-accessible house for Smith, his wife and their new baby.

“This isn’t a place to hold this family over, this is a one-of-kind brand-new house for them to enjoy as a family,” says Fitzpatrick. Everything in the home is made with Smith’s wheelchair in mind: bigger doorways, no thresholds and full-access showers, among other features.

“One of my favorite moments was the day after we finished the project,” recalls Fitzpatrick. “Jason texted me at 6:00 a.m. and said, ‘Dude, you have no idea how awesome it is to move around this house without getting carpet stuck in my wheels.’ Something as little as that was such a big deal for him.”

President Jack Thompson from Chattanooga, TN Local 820 and Recording Secretary Jake Case were part of the many Chattanooga fire fighters who rallied around the cause after hearing about the project from Fitzpatrick. “The most important thing is that no one makes a dime,” says Case. “There isn’t a lot of support for these guys once they get home. We started something here, and we will follow [ASJH] anywhere they go.”

After the success of the build for Smith, A Soldier’s Journey Home was officially off and running. Another build is scheduled for May 14-21 – this time for U.S. Marine Lance Corporal Cody Evans, who lost both legs to an IED explosion overseas.

Fitzpatrick, whose son plays football for Northwestern, has honored both Jason Smith and Cody Evans during halftime at Northwestern University games. An honor guard and bagpipes greeted Evans at the Chicago O’Hare airport upon his arrival. According to Fitzpatrick, “there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”

Jimmy Miks, a teacher at a local Chicago high school, heard about the cause in 2014 and emboldened John Hersey High School to raise $23,000 for Jason Smith’s house. This year, the students raised $30,000. “Miks and the students do it all themselves,” says Case. “I never saw a Gingerbread House contest make so much money.” ASJH also receives free blueprints for their houses from the students in Hersey High School’s architecture class.

The Smith build was completed in nine days. The Evans build is scheduled for seven. “We plan all year for this,” says Fitzpatrick. “It is pretty amazing to see the before and after shots. We bring in an electrician who might take two weeks to complete a normal job, and ask him to do it in six hours using our team of 50 guys. It’s incredible at the end to see what we’ve built in such a short time and to know that it will go to such good use.”

The team count for the May 14 build is up to 85 fire fighters, police and civilians from 14 states. Fitzpatrick continues to receive donations from those in area that want to help out. “I just had a guy call me and donate $7,000 worth of granite for the kitchen,” he says. “We don’t need it to be that fancy, but once people find out about this thing, they want to give back like that.”

Fitzpatrick is eager to see ASJH grow even further and encourages those interested to participate or start a fundraising event. The organization has a web site (www.asoldiersjourneyhome.org) with additional information and for making donations. In addition, the group’s Facebook page is very active and features the O’Hare welcome reception for Cody Evans.